As the sky took on the colors of dawn, there was still no sign of pursuit.
"I should have killed that troll," Bryce mourned.
"Are you really a killer?" Eddie asked as he drove. He shivered in the cold morning air that rolled over the windshield and tangled his messy hair.
"He would have killed us," Bryce said.
"He was going to kill me," Eddie reminded him. "You could have gotten away. Thanks for not abandoning me, by the way."
"I would have been just as dead without my car. And the troll would have gotten me eventually. He still will. I should have shot him."
"You couldn't shoot them all. That kid with the blindfold. What's his deal?"
"You tell me. You're the one that knows everything."
Eddie shrugged. "I try not to think about it."
"I wish I'd at least searched that jeep for food before we left. I'm dying."
"I'm not sure you'd want whatever that troll was eating."
Ahead, the light on the horizon grew more distinct. A pale form took shape in the shimmering air.
"What is it?" Eddie asked.
"Where are we?"
Bryce turned to him, sneering. "How the hell should I know?"
"I'm just asking."
Bryce frowned. "I'm hungry. Whatever that is up there, I hope I can eat it."
The gleaming spot grew on the horizon over the next half hour, its colors taking shape like a blooming flower. A low squat building with a canopy before it sat under a rotating sign elevated on a tall column. Red characters on the sign against a white background read Fuel Fast. *
"It's a gas station," Bryce said.
Eddie's pressed a fist against his abdomen. "I hope they sell more than gas. My stomach feels like a flat tire."
The exterior of the station was a weather beaten shade of pale cream, positioned on an irregular patch of old cracked asphalt. The canopy over the fuel pumps leaned a tad to one side. Eddie would have guessed the place was abandoned if the sign above the station didn't rotate.
Eddie pulled up next to an old truck on the side and cut the engine. They both sat, the only sound to marr the silence was the grinding buzz of the rotating sign.
"I think I smell hot dogs," Bryce said.
Eddie pushed his door open. Standing was a struggle now. He shuffled in front of Bryce.
The windowed storefront featured a display of what must have been regional knick knacks, but from a region far removed from this wasteland. The prized centerpiece of this display was a porcelain tree stump about the size of Eddie's fist, with knotted roots twisting into a porcelain grassy base, all in cheerful pastels with characters at the base that simply declared "The Stump". The stump seemed to be a point of pride, because there were also license plate covers that informed fellow drivers, "I'VE SEEN THE STUMP. BACK OFF," posters of a golden gateway over a forest path that declares, "This way to the Stump of Destiny." And a thin paperback book that claimed, "Fifty Ways THE STUMP Can Change Your Life." Beside the stump products there was also a bin of crocheted footbags, ornate walking sticks, Mad Dog puppets, and other tourist knick knacks.
Eddie stared at this bounty of kitch, his eyes darting restlessly from item to item. He withered backwards, his arms shrinking into his chest. "Too much," he whimpered, and for once, he was glad he'd been dropped in an empty desert. Unmoored flotsam already crammed his head. This information packed display was like kettle drums pounding on gray matter. 1000 Trivia Facts About The Stump one book promised. (Stump your Friends). Eddie didn't want to know anything about the stump. He wanted to run until this store was out of sight, bury his face in the dust and wait for darkness.
"You gonna go in, or you just gonna stand in my way?" Bryce asked.
Bryce grasped Eddie's shoulders, eased him to the side and pushed the door open.
A blast of air-conditioned heaven gusted out at them. Eddie shook off his momentary madness and caught the door as it closed behind Bryce. After days in the desert, the gas station reeked of chilled civilization and overcooked meat byproducts. He stood there, breathing the air.
"Sir, could you please close the door?"
Eddie spotted the man behind the register, tall, in a white shirt with a black bow tie. He nodded at Eddie with practiced courtesy.
"Sorry," Eddie said and stepped in.
"Welcome to Fuel Fast," the clerk said. "Where our customer service is unsurpassed."
"Uh, thank you. Do you take Visa?"
"Of course, sir."
Bryce was already at the hot dog roaster, loading a dog and bun with a quart each of ketchup and mustard. He shoved half of it into his mouth.
"Sir, please don't eat the food until it's paid--"
Bryce held up a finger as he chewed, cheeks full, ecstasy on his face. Eddie nudged him aside as the clerk stammered about store policy. The dogs were dry and wrinkled, the buns were hard. They looked delicious.
They both downed two hot dogs each, the clerk protesting vehemently as they did, even when Eddie held up his Visa card. "You got to understand," Bryce explained through a mouthful of chewed dog. "We need this."
"I could lose my job," the clerk protested, his professional facade cracking.
"I don't see anyone around here to fire you."
"You don't understand."
Eddie put his credit card on the counter. The clerk swiped the card and frowned. "It appears we aren't connected to the server."
Bryce snorted as he prepared his third dog. "Huh! You just noticing that?"
The clerk frowned. Up close Eddie saw the red in the clerk's eyes. The man trembled, his head twitching almost as badly as Eddie when he saw the stump. He swiped the card a second time, his mouth in a tight quivering frown. "Come on." He tried again.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, sir."
"Because you look like you haven't slept in days."
The clerk's eyes remained fixed on the credit card machine.
"Has your store always been in this desert?"
The man didn't react. He swiped the card.
"So you showed up out here like magic? Did your store come with you?"
"It will have to be a paper transaction," the clerk said. He drew a form out from under the counter and copied the card information.
"Okay, you do that. I'm going to hit the can."
The clerk's head jerked up with alarm. "Please don't hit the cans, sir. Not until they're paid for."
Eddie nodded towards the back of the store. "Be right back."
"Sir, I can't have you holding up the line. You must complete your transaction before leaving."
Eddie looked from the clerk to the men's room sign. A night's worth of Mountain Sunrise pressed on his bladder. "I I'm sorry." He stepped briskly away towards the restroom.
When he shuffled into the men's room, the door closed and locked automatically behind him. The room was no bigger than a closet, with room for the toilet, the sink and a towel dispenser. The trash receptacle was a broad slot in the wall. The room was spotless, with chrome and snow white porcelain. Eddie did his business, flushed, washed hands and splashed water on his face.
When he turned to leave, he found there was no handle on the door. Instead, there was a digital screen. It provided the following tally:
Waste Disposal: 1.36 pounds x 0.35 = $0.48
Water usage: 3.25 quarts x .50 = $1.63
Paper towels + disposal: 3 x .25 = $0.75
Subtotal = $2.86
Local Taxes @@0.13 = $0.38
Total Due = $3.24
A light beside the credit card slot below the screen blinked red.
Eddie stared at it. "Not funny. Not funny at all." He ran a hand up and down the side of the door frame, looking for a release lever or button. There was nothing. He banged on the door. "Uh could someone let me out of here? My credit card is still on the counter. Hello?" He pounded the door harder.
An additional line of text appeared on the screen.
Any damage inflicted on this waste disposal unit will be added to your bill. Please be courteous and leave this unit in the same condition you found it.
"This is crazy," Eddie muttered, the first tendrils of claustrophobia now clutching around his shoulders and compressing his chest. He tried to knock courteously, then began pounding and kicking furiously. "Let me out! Let me out!"
Nothing happened for more than a minute. Eddie stood rigid, his arms pulled tight against his sides, nodding rhythmically. Bryce and that high-strung clerk must have heard him by now.
He let out another barrage of kicks and slaps at the door, shouting out loud. He closed his eyes and focused on breathing. He searched his pockets. In his vest, he found his coupon for a half-off sub at Sal's Sub Shop. He stuffed it into the card slot.
The slot sucked in the coupon with a whir. There was a moment's silence, and then the overhead lights turned crimson. A grinding hum churned in the floor below. The screen flashed.
Invalid payment method. Fraud is a punishable offence.
"What? The bathroom is going to punish me?"
Occupant has one minute to rectify this transgression. Insert proper payment, or incineration will commence at the expense of next of kin.